The Case of the Wily Coyote

For Margarita Parada, a 19-year-old from a village deep in Mexico, the adventure of a lifetime is about to start. It is April 11, 2005, and Margarita has stuffed a suitcase and her backpack with favorite clothes and personal mementos.

Margarita is the second youngest of Maria and Pablo Parada's eight children. She's always been one of the family favorites because of her sweet, almost naive disposition, and her puckish sense of humor.

Though the Paradas are poor -- Pablo Parada toils in the fields -- they aren't starving. Some of the siblings have worked illegally in the U.S. for years, and always send a chunk of their earnings back home.

Margarita lives in Santa María Zoquitlán, a mountain town of 2,000 inhabitants about 45 miles from the capital city of Oaxaca. Recently, she's been tending to the needs of older sister Paula, who's recovering from a serious illness.

The young woman also has a 3-year-old daughter, Esmeralda. Esmeralda's father, Aurelio Espina, now lives in Atlanta, where he works in construction.

Though separated by distance, the young couple wants more than anything to be together. Now, Aurelio can afford to pay a coyote -- the Mexican word for a human smuggler -- to sneak Margarita into the States and provide her passage to Atlanta.

The fee is $1,200, half up front and half when she gets there.

The coyote is Abelardo Jarquin-Lopez, who also comes from the state of Oaxaca. He's promised Aurelio and the Paradas that he'll personally see to it that Margarita makes it to Georgia safely.

Everyone is comfortable putting Margarita in Abelardo's hands because, as her sister Paula says later, he's practically family.

Abelardo, who's 26, has been dating another of Margarita's older sisters, Eugenia. Eugenia usually refers to him as her husband.

The plan is for Abelardo to smuggle Margarita across the border from Nogales, Sonora. If all goes well, it will be her first time in the U.S.

Abelardo and his older brother Alfonso have access in Phoenix to so-called "drop houses" -- way stations for the dozens of Mexicans who enter Arizona illegally every day.

After taking a few days to regroup in the Valley, Abelardo will drive Margarita to Atlanta. The entire trek will be about 3,100 miles.

Margarita's mother and sisters will take care of little Esmeralda until the couple figures out their next step. That makes sense to the Paradas, who know the dangers inherent in crossing the border illegally -- least of which may be getting caught by authorities.

A U.S. Border Patrol spokesman says there have been reported criminal "incidents" involving 330 illegal aliens on the Arizona-Mexico border since last October 1, including assaults, robberies and rapes.

It's unknown how many crimes against the migrants occur on the Mexican side of the border. And immigration experts say that, for obvious reasons, aliens rarely report crimes committed against them on either side of the border.

Border Patrol agents have detained Abelardo Jarquin-Lopez six times since 2003. On each occasion, they fingerprinted him and sent him back to Mexico, to start the cycle again.

Margarita kisses Esmeralda goodbye before boarding a first-class bus in Oaxaca for the first part of her journey north.

Joining her on the bus is her common-law brother-in-law Abelardo.

It's just after noon on April 20 in Phoenix.

A housekeeper at La Quinta Inn on Thomas Road and Interstate 17 knocks on the ground-floor door of Room 121 to see if the tenants have checked out.

Getting no response, she unlocks the door and sees a room in disarray. Men's and women's clothes are strewn on the floor and bed. Empty Bud Light bottles are everywhere, and garbage pails are overflowing. The television is on, tuned to a Spanish-speaking station.

The housekeeper steps slowly into the room and asks loudly if anyone's there. No one answers. She walks past the twin beds to look in the bathroom.

What she sees is the stuff of nightmares:

A dark-haired woman is lying face-down in the bathtub, in about four inches of standing water, with her submerged face over the drain.

The woman is wearing a black-and-turquoise tank top, and is naked from the waist down.

She isn't moving.

The housekeeper runs out of the room and across a walkway to inform her manager, who calls 911 at 12:36 p.m.

Two Phoenix police cars and a fire truck arrive a few minutes later. Paramedics soon confirm that the woman in the tub is dead.

Three detectives show up about 1 p.m.

Detective Cliff Jewell enters Room 121 and takes a look around.

On the nightstand between the beds, he sees a pillow case with what appear to be blood stains on it. And the mattress on the bed closest to the bathroom is off kilter for some reason.

Though the detective sees no obvious signs of trauma on the body of the woman in the tub, he starts to suspect foul play, not an accidental drowning.

That means the on-duty homicide detectives of Phoenix's C-32 squad, Jack Ballentine, Jason Schechterle and Tom D'Aguanno, will assume the investigation.

They get to the La Quinta at 2 p.m. Ballentine will be the lead detective, and D'Aguanno will take the scene. New to the homicide unit, Schechterle will do what Ballentine tells him to do.

The murder detectives take note of the amount of clutter in Room 121, including the 20-plus Bud Light empties.

"Gotta be a homicide," says Sergeant Patrick Kotecki, chuckling. He and his detectives know how often Bud Light seems to show up inside their crime scenes. One witty squad member has dubbed it the homicide squad's official beer.

But Ballentine doesn't know yet if he's going to be investigating a murder. "Sometimes it may look like homicide when it's not," he says. "But when we finally go in, I'll assume it's a crime scene until we find out otherwise, and that someone killed her."

To be on the safe side legally, Ballentine closes down the room until securing a search warrant from a judge. That will take a few hours.

While the other detectives wait for Tom D'Aguanno to return with the warrant, they interview motel employees and try to sort out who had been renting Room 121.

They learn that a man whose Mexican driver's license identified him as Felix Garnica had checked into the room with another Latino at 8:30 a.m. on April 17. The cost was $66.12, which Garnica paid in cash.

Garnica also rented Room 149 -- for a relative, he'd told the clerk in broken English. Garnica later paid for two more days in both rooms.

Just before 3 a.m. on April 20 (the day the woman's body was found), the motel clerk happened to see a man, not Garnica, leave Room 121 and head to the lobby.

That man's ID card listed him as Mexican citizen Silvano Ramirez. He rented Room 304 -- the "Presidential Suite" -- for $77.

The detectives go to see what rooms 149 and 304 look like. Both have been vacated, and housekeepers already have cleaned Room 149.

According to the staff, Room 304 seems not to have been used at all.

Knowing they'll be working late, the cops walk to grab a bite at a Denny's that shares a parking lot with the La Quinta. An officer stands guard at Room 121, which has been cordoned off with yellow crime-scene tape.

Just after the cops order at about 3:30 p.m., La Quinta's manager comes by to say a woman has just phoned after hearing on the radio about the unidentified female's death.

The caller is saying the dead girl may be her missing sister.

"This just got a lot easier for you, right?" the manager asks Jack Ballentine.

"Yeah, right," the detective responds drolly.

Canceling his food order, Ballentine walks back to the motel office to speak with the caller, who's been holding on. But a few minutes later, the detective hangs up the phone, shrugs and announces, "Not our gal. Doesn't fit at all. Too bad."

The detectives reenter Room 121 with the warrant at 4:30 p.m.

Besides the bloody pillow case on the nightstand, they see towels in the bathroom that also have bloodlike stains on them.

It will be a few hours yet before they examine their victim, if indeed she is a victim of a crime.

Detective D'Aguanno and an assistant document the evidence in the room, taking measurements and photographing everything before carefully placing it all into plastic and paper bags.

They find a receipt from a Wal-Mart dated just after midnight on April 20, within hours of the woman's death.

The investigators strike gold inside a small black backpack on a chair, in terms of identifying the person whose body lies in the bathtub a few feet away.

It contains an identification card from Mexico with a fingerprint and photo of a pretty girl laminated onto it, bus tickets from Oaxaca, personal photographs, and handwritten sheets of phone numbers and addresses.

The ID card is signed by Margarita Parada-Alavez from Oaxaca, with a date of birth listed as July 20, 1985.

Phony Mexican ID cards are as common as are taco stands on the U.S.-Mexico border. But it's a starting point, and the detectives start to suspect that the body in the tub may be Margarita's.

Jason Schechterle stands outside Room 121 with Sergeant Kotecki for a moment as the search inside steadily proceeds. The eager new homicide detective is as jacked up as a little kid on his first day of school.

He blurts out, "I love everything about death! Looking at it, smelling it, seeing it, solving it."

The remark momentarily renders Kotecki speechless.

Schechterle's mentor, Jack Ballentine, overhears the comment but says nothing. He loves the junior detective, but the concept of loving the smell of death is something he'll be addressing with Schechterle later.

Sure enough, the sickening smell begins to waft from the bathroom about 7 p.m.

"She's not decomposed yet, but she's working on it," Ballentine says.

Two members of the county Medical Examiner's Office arrive at 8 p.m. Their grim task is to lift the woman's lifeless body out of the tub, examine it briefly at the scene, bag it, and deliver it to the morgue for an autopsy.

The men spread a white tarp on the floor at the foot of the beds. Then the pair lift the body out of the tub, creating an eerie splashing sound that stops everyone in the room short.

Someone wonders aloud how the woman's face will look, having been submerged in the water for hours.

The guys from the Medical Examiner's Office carefully lay the body onto the tarp, where her soaked black hair splays out on the white cloth.

Hauntingly, the dead girl's eyes are half-open, staring into the void. But her strikingly beautiful facial features are unmarred.

"What a sweet little face," Jason Schechterle says.

Everyone agrees that it seems to be Margarita, the girl depicted on the Mexican ID and photographs found in the backpack.

But police won't make that official until they compare the fingerprint on the Mexican ID with those of the deceased girl. That won't happen until after her autopsy, a few days from now.

"I don't see any obvious visible injuries," the medical investigator says, kneeling on the floor close to the body.

"What about that knife in her chest? That still there?" Jack Ballentine says, trying to lighten things for a moment.

The lack of apparent injuries to the young woman raises a question of whose blood is on the towels and linen.

By 9 p.m., the girl's body is on its way to the downtown Phoenix morgue. Her autopsy may answer important questions, including the big one: Is this a murder?

Detective Ballentine takes stock when he gets to work at the downtown Phoenix police station at 6 the next morning, April 21.

"Let's see," he says, wryly. "No for-sure identification yet, no cause or manner of death, no suspects, no nothing. Just a girl dead in a motel bathtub."

What Ballentine does have is a possible identification, a significant plus. He and his peers know of many cases involving murdered illegal aliens who never are identified, much less their killers brought to justice.

Many of these anonymous victims are buried in Maricopa County's potter's field, located at the White Tanks Cemetery in the far West Valley.

The new case takes an unexpected turn at 10 a.m.

A New Jersey man phones the Phoenix PD wanting to speak about a recent case involving illegal aliens in a motel off Interstate 17.

The call is routed to Jack Ballentine.

Jerry Embarger says he's speaking on behalf of an employee of his who speaks little English. That employee is Sal Jarquin-Lopez.

Through Embarger, Sal says he's been contacted by an unidentified man using a cell phone belonging to Abelardo Jarquin-Lopez, one of Sal's brothers.

Sal says Abelardo and another brother, Alfonso, recently sneaked into Arizona from the Oaxaca area with the help of coyotes. Also along on the trip was Abelardo's sister-in-law, whose name escapes him at the moment.

Sal claims the coyotes had "kidnapped" his brothers in Phoenix. He says Alfonso has been telling him they'd been held captive at a La Quinta motel at 2725 North Black Canyon Highway.

They've released Alfonso, Sal says, but are demanding $10,000 in exchange for Abelardo, who's being held somewhere in Phoenix.

Ballentine instructs Embarger to ask Sal not to transfer the $10,000 quite yet. He collects the Mexican phone number of Abelardo's common-law wife Eugenia Parada, and also says he needs to speak with Alfonso right away.

Minutes later, Alfonso Jarquin-Lopez calls the detective. One of Ballentine's Spanish-speaking squad mates, Steve Orona, takes the call.

Alfonso tells him he'd recently arrived in Arizona with Abelardo and Abelardo's sister-in-law, whose name he also can't recall. They each had paid $600 to coyotes who took them to the La Quinta.

Abelardo and the girl had been held captive in one room, and Alfonso had been kept in Room 203. Alfonso says he hadn't seen or spoken to Abelardo or the girl since then, two or three days ago.

Alfonso has provided promising leads, including the first mention of Room 203 (not 149 or 304).

After hanging up, Ballentine soon learns that a woman named Vilma had rented Room 203 at the La Quinta for one day, April 19. The detective wonders aloud if Vilma, who listed a Phoenix address when paying for her room, may be a conduit for incoming coyotes.

Surveillance tapes from the motel lobby show Vilma kissing an unidentified Hispanic man when they'd checked in on the morning of the 19th.

Ballentine also asks fellow detective John Shallue to assist him as his investigation proceeds. Shallue is a Spanish-speaking member of the department's Foreign Prosecution team.

Shallue soon finds out that, contrary to Alfonso's portrayal of himself as a victim of coyotes, both he and his brother Abelardo are well-known to border authorities as coyotes.

The next morning, April 22, the detectives attend the autopsy of the girl in the bathtub, as she's come to be known.

Dr. Robert Lyon works briskly under the bright lights at the county's Forensic Science Center.

Lyon discovers fingernail etchings on the young woman's face, and pronounced marks on her neck, around the outside of her mouth, and on her upper arms. He notes the bruising and abrasions inside her mouth.

As Dr. Lyon continues his grisly work, Jack Ballentine reveals that he used to enjoy autopsies, both as a learning experience and as an investigative tool.

No more.

"There's nothing enjoyable about this, nothing at all," he says. "This is going to turn out to be a homicide, I can feel it. Now all we can do is see if we can get enough evidence so a prosecutor can convict someone of something someday."

Toward the end of the hourlong autopsy, Dr. Lyon dissects the girl's larynx and studies it meticulously with magnifying glasses.

After a few minutes, the doctor announces, "We're looking at a manual strangulation homicide here. She was murdered. It's hard to tell if she was dead before she was in the tub, though I suspect she was."

"Poor little girl," Jack Ballentine says softly.

A rape-kit test done during the autopsy indicates that the dead girl hadn't been sexually assaulted, which surprises the lead detective.

A technician lifts the girl's fingerprints as soon as the postmortem is completed, so the cops can make a definitive ID. But it's a Friday, and it will be Monday before the Phoenix police crime lab analyzes the prints.

"I'm trying to get a feel of this thing," Ballentine says on the short trip back to the police station. "We have a murder, and I think we have an Alfonso and an Abelardo. But there are way too many moving parts at this point."

That afternoon, Detective Shallue reaches Margarita's sister Eugenia by phone in Santa María Zoquitlán.

Eugenia tells him that Margarita had left for the States days earlier with Abelardo. She adds that Abelardo is her common-law husband.

Shallue asks Eugenia to fax him a photograph of Margarita, which she does within a few hours.

It is obvious to Shallue and the other detectives that Margarita is "their" murder victim.

But he can't tell Eugenia yet that her kid sister is dead because the fingerprint analysis hasn't been completed. The detective promises to let her know as soon as he learns something.

Nothing happens with the murder case over the weekend.

But first thing Monday morning, April 25, Jack Ballentine gets word that Margarita Parada has been positively identified.

He asks John Shallue to make the next-of-kin call to Eugenia Parada. During that sad call, Eugenia provides the detective with much more detail than in their first, shorter conversation.

She says Margarita had left Oaxaca by bus on April 11 with Abelardo and, possibly, with another man she knows only as Freddie. She describes her "husband" as a coyote who splits his time between Oaxaca and Phoenix.

Eugenia says Abelardo regularly uses cocaine and consumes large quantities of Bud Light in bottles when he's in the States.

She says Abelardo has been calling her often in the past few days. He's been claiming that four armed coyotes had kidnapped him and Margarita from their room at the Phoenix La Quinta. The quartet then had taken him to a house somewhere in Phoenix.

He swears he doesn't know where Margarita is.

Eugenia tells Shallue that she'd confronted Abelardo during the calls. She knows if this had been a typical kidnapping by coyotes, the bad guys soon would have demanded ransom money of the Paradas.

But no one called Margarita's family asking for a payoff.

Eugenia says she'd spoken to Abelardo again a day ago. He'd escaped from his captors, he told her, and was in Nogales waiting for his brother Alfonso to bring him some money.

In the most recent conversation, Abelardo had explained that an unidentified man had gone to the motel at some point to see if Margarita had returned to Room 121. The man reported he'd seen blood in the room, but no sign of the girl.

"He is making excuses and his story makes no sense," Eugenia tells Detective Shallue of the man she loved and thought she knew. "He doesn't want to talk about my sister."

Soon after she hangs up, Eugenia faxes a photograph of Abelardo to the Phoenix police. He's posing with one foot on the front bumper of a pickup truck, wearing a black cowboy hat and a smug smile, looking like he's got it all going on.

But now, Abelardo Jarquin-Lopez has become a prime suspect in a murder case.

At 10 a.m. on the 25th, John Shallue speaks with Margarita's brother Balfre.

An illegal alien who lives and works in Dearborn, Michigan, Balfre says he'd spoken with Abelardo on Sunday night, April 17. To Balfre's consternation, Abelardo had told him that he and Margarita were staying together in a Phoenix motel room.

"I asked him why they were alone in a motel, and he told me not to worry," Balfre recalls. "I was worried for her because she's my sister, but he's also my brother-in-law, so nothing should be happening."

Balfre says, on the early evening of April 19, he'd answered another call from Abelardo's cell phone.

This time, Margarita herself was on the line.

She'd told him she was hiding from Abelardo in the bathroom and was very frightened. Tearfully, Margarita said Abelardo was snorting cocaine and drinking heavily, and had tried to rape her. She'd rebuffed his advances, but feared he was about to try again.

"I told her to get out of the room and ask for help," Balfre says.

He says he's tried to contact the Jarquin-Lopez brothers by cell phone numerous times since then. Abelardo hasn't returned his calls, though Balfre did speak with Alfonso on the 20th -- shortly after the housekeeper discovered Margarita's body.

"[Alfonso] told me that Abelardo and Margarita had been kidnapped," Balfre says, repeating the story Abelardo had been trying to sell his "wife," Eugenia Parada.

Later that day, Balfre again had tried to reach Alfonso by phone to demand more information about his sister. He says a stranger had answered and told him about a dead woman being found in a room at the La Quinta.

Detective Shallue now tells Balfre that his sister Margarita has been murdered.

Detectives Ballentine and Schechterle return to the La Quinta in the early afternoon with the faxed photograph of Abelardo. But no one there recognizes the murder suspect.

Ballentine seizes the opportunity to revisit Schechterle's troubling "smell of death" remarks from a few days earlier.

"Jason, I've been meaning to talk to you about something," he tells Schechterle in the parking lot. "I can't stand murder. I want you to know that. Can't stand the smell of it. The blood. Anything about it. Whenever it happens, I'm working for the family of the dead person, to try to find the person who did it and get them off the street. That's all. Margarita is done. She's dead, and there's nothing we can do about that."

"But you're still working for her, too," Schechterle replies.

"No, she's dead," Ballentine continues. "You can be her voice, but you're really trying to provide answers to her family and to get from here to there, to make sure the killer won't have a chance to do this ever again."

No one says much on the trip back downtown.

The Phoenix cops ask U.S. border authorities to hold the Jarquin-Lopez brothers if they happen to nab them.

Ballentine also speaks of developing "probable cause" to raid the west Phoenix home of Vilma, the mystery tenant of Room 203 who may or may not have been involved.

The next day, April 26, John Shallue speaks again with a grieving Eugenia Parada. She tells him Abelardo had called the previous night with a curious request.

She says he'd asked her to leave her family, travel north and be with him. She'd asked Abelardo where he was. He wouldn't say.

Eugenia says she'd told him she didn't believe anything he was saying. He cursed her and hung up the phone.

She tells Shallue that she'd gone that morning to the Jarquin-Lopez family home to gather some things she had there.

She says Abelardo already had warned his family by phone that the Paradas were going to kill them in revenge for Margarita's death.

"I told them I had no hard feelings toward them," Eugenia says.

Detective Ballentine calls Alfonso's cell phone the next morning, April 27. Alfonso answers and tells the cop he's on his way back to Mexico.

He says that he, too, fears being killed by the Parada clan. That call is the last time Alfonso makes himself available to the Phoenix police for comment.

His brother Abelardo also vanishes into the coyote netherworld.

Through good fortune and doggedness -- the twin towers of homicide investigation -- the Phoenix detectives have identified Margarita Parada's likely killer, Abelardo Jarquin-Lopez.

One remaining loose investigative thread is Vilma, the lady from Room 203.

On April 29, Ballentine asks a team of four plainclothes officers to trail her around town from her home in west Phoenix.

Surreptitiously, they follow Vilma on and off for days, but the effort proves uneventful. It becomes apparent to the cops that Vilma isn't currently using her residence as a drop house for illegal aliens, nor has she been meeting with any of the known key players in the murder case.

Ballentine still plans to interview Vilma, but his sense of urgency about this lead is gone.

Time moves apace within Phoenix's homicide unit, as new investigations and deadlines take precedence over all else. But Ballentine won't put his file on the Parada case in a cabinet until something breaks.

In fact, he keeps it right on his desk and occasionally revisits it, making notes and keeping fresh with the myriad details.

He also keeps Detective Shallue in the loop, reminding the detective to keep his ear attuned to any news from his border sources about Abelardo and Alfonso Jarquin-Lopez.

Months pass.

Margarita's daughter, Esmeralda, turns 4.

Her dad, Aurelio, stays in touch with the Paradas, still sending them money regularly for the little girl's care.

The Paradas pay for authorities to ship Margarita's body back to Mexico for a proper funeral and burial. The young woman's body is dressed in white and taken to a church in her little hometown for a final viewing.

"She loved life itself," her mother says.

Says Margarita's sister Paula, "My sister loved to sing and dance and have fun. She made everyone around her smile. She went to the States to be with the father of their child. And this guy ended up killing her because she wouldn't give in to him. How sad is that?"

In early November, Ballentine summarizes the status of the case, writing that "if and when these two subjects [the Jarquin-Lopez brothers] cross the Mexican border into the United States, they will be held for questioning. . . . Friends and family have been contacted in an effort to have the men contact me, but they have refused."

Also that month, Detective Ballentine finally interviews Vilma at a Phoenix hotel, where she works as a housekeeper.

Vilma says she and her boyfriend had gone to the La Quinta that April 19 for "some adult time together," and that's all.

Ballentine shows her photos of the Jarquin-Lopez brothers and Felix Garnica -- the guy who'd rented the three rooms. Vilma says she's never seen them, and swears that she and her boyfriend aren't coyotes.

The detective thanks her for her time, and leaves.

On the afternoon of January 28, 2006, Peoria police officer Tony Anglin pulls up to a home on West Turquoise Avenue. A Hispanic man is hiding in a garage there and is saying he fears he's going to be killed.

Anglin coaxes the man out of the garage, and sees he has deep cuts and bruises all over his body, including his face. The cop calls in for a translator because the man, Sergio Santos, speaks little English.

The residence is teeming with people, all of them Latinos, though the place has little furniture or other household items.

A classic drop house.

Santos tells the translator he'd been riding around earlier that day in his Ford truck with two friends. One of his pals, Abelardo Vasquez, was driving.

Santos claims Vasquez had pulled a semi-automatic pistol from his waistband and pointed it at him. Santos says he'd jumped out of the moving vehicle, causing serious road rash.

Santos says he fled to safety, and made his way back to his residence. He called police with someone else's cell phone because he'd left his own phone in his truck.

After prodding by Officer Anglin, Santos admits he runs the drop house for Mexican illegals. Remarkably, he says about 50 people a week at about $1,000 a head run through the home.

Santos says Abelardo Vasquez is one of his drivers and often acts as an "enforcer" when people don't pay up on time. He's worried that Vasquez has designs on killing him and then assuming Santos' booming coyote business.

Later, Officer Anglin writes in his police report:

"Sergio said [Abelardo] has been running illegals for the past few years and is currently a suspect in two homicide investigations in Phoenix, one of which a female with the last name of Paralda [sic] was raped and strangled."

The Peoria cop calls over to the Phoenix PD, which dispatches Officer Michael Villarreal to the home on Turquoise. Villarreal asks Sergio Santos to come with him to the Cactus Park precinct for further questioning.

There, the officer asks Santos more about the murdered woman, and he later writes:

"Sergio told me that, last year, in about August, there was a murder involving Abelardo's sister-in-law and her last name was Parada. Sergio said she was about 20 years old and this occurred at a hotel on the south side of Phoenix, on Broadway Road. . . . It is unknown who killed the female, but she was strangled."

Villarreal searches in vain on his police computer for a murder victim named Parada who'd died the previous August. (The alleged second homicide investigation never does come to light.)

The officer decides to call the department's homicide unit anyway. Someone puts him through to Jack Ballentine.

Santos has been a little off -- Margarita Parada died in April, not August, and the motel was on Thomas Road, not Broadway Road.

And Abelardo "Vasquez's" real last name is Jarquin-Lopez.

Other than that, the coyote's information is chillingly accurate, especially about the cause of death being strangulation.

Ballentine is elated that Abelardo has resurfaced, though for how long is anyone's guess. What gives the detective hope of capturing the suspect is that someone is still using Sergio Santos' cell phone.

If the phone stays on, satellite technology could lead police to its -- and hopefully Abelardo's -- exact whereabouts. Thankfully for the cops, the phone does stay alive.

On February 9, Phoenix PD's Special Assignments Unit (SWAT team) moves in on a home in Sunnyslope, in the 9000 block of North 12th Street. That's where someone using Santos' cell phone has been making calls.

The cops at the scene stay in close touch with Jack Ballentine as they invent a ruse to get inside the residence, yet another drop house for Mexican illegals.

In turn, Ballentine alerts John Shallue to the strong possibility that the cops are closing in on Abelardo Jarquin-Lopez. Shallue has done a lot of work on this case, and Ballentine will want him to interrogate Abelardo if and when the time comes.

Out in Sunnyslope, Dave Lucero, an ex-homicide detective who returned to street work a few years ago, is instrumental in identifying and corralling Abelardo.

The suspect first tells police he's Juan Garcia-Ruiz, and he presents an ID card to prove it.

But down at the Phoenix police station, it becomes apparent to Ballentine, Shallue and everyone else that the man in custody looks the same as the photos of Abelardo.

He's a slight, unimposing man wearing sandals, dirty black pants and a nondescript shirt, far different from the confident-looking gaucho in the photo sent by Eugenia. Abelardo's hands tremble as a technician rolls his fingerprints, but otherwise he remains impassive.

Detective Shallue used to do fingerprint work in the military, and now he compares prints previously taken by immigration authorities of Abelardo's right and left index fingers with the ones just taken.

According to Shallue, they match perfectly.

At 6:30 p.m., Ballentine phones fellow detective Jason Schechterle.

"It's really him," he says.

Schechterle says he'll be right down.

The interview promises to be momentous for Shallue, 36, a Phoenix cop since 1996. His appearance as a youthful-looking white guy has thrown off more than one Latino suspect expecting more of an overt heavy-hitter.

But Shallue is a very effective interviewer in Spanish, though he didn't start studying it seriously as his second language until he was 20.

He became even more intent about learning the language after working as an officer on the streets of Phoenix -- "You have to be able to communicate with people," he says. It also helped when he married a woman whose family is Mexican.

Phoenix PD certified him as a translator in 2000, and he joined the agency's Foreign Prosecution team -- where fluency in Spanish is a must -- in 2004.

Case detectives Ballentine and Schechterle will monitor the interview on a television screen across the hall.

"Hey, John," Ballentine tells Shallue. "If you get stumped on any Spanish words in there, just ask me."

"Sí, señor," Shallue replies.

The detective first gives the suspect a bottle of water, and tries to verify his name and address. Abelardo continues to say he's Garcia-Ruiz, a native of Mexico City.

"Look at me," Shallue tells him in Spanish. "I know who you are, and I don't want you to lie to me. I have photos of you, and I've spoken to your family. So tell me the truth."

Shallue hands the man a form to sign that will cause police to notify the Mexican consulate of his current detention.

He signs the form "Abelardo Jarquin-Lopez."

That's a huge admission in this dance between the detective and his prey.

Abelardo now tells Shallue he's been in the States on and off for about seven years. He admits he's a coyote and is paid $400 for every person he smuggles into the States.

Fourteen minutes into the interview, the detective raises Margarita's name for the first time. Abelardo shakes his head from side to side, as if to say he's never heard of her, but Shallue is insistent.

Abelardo soon admits he was at the La Quinta in April 2005 with his sister-in-law, Margarita Parada-Alavez. He says he was charging Margarita's "husband" $1,000 to get her to Atlanta.

Abelardo says he, his brother Alfonso and two other coyotes were waiting for someone to bring about 20 more illegal aliens to the motel, which is why they'd rented three rooms.

Abelardo claims he'd been in Room 121 with Margarita and two of his coyote colleagues when "la mataran" -- they killed her.

He says he doesn't know who "they" were.

Abelardo says an unknown man had come into the room brandishing a revolver, and had bashed him in the nose with it. Then, the attacker had forced him and another coyote named Alfredo into a car.

At a house somewhere in Phoenix, the kidnappers (there were others waiting there) had demanded $10,000 from Abelardo's brothers.

But Abelardo and his pal were able to escape from their captors after a day, and immediately split for Nogales. From there, they'd gone to Mexico City.

Shallue replies by telling Abelardo about the uniqueness of his fingerprints and DNA, and that the evidence will reveal if he's lying.

"Do you know that Margarita called her brother Balfre from the motel?" the detective asks Abelardo.

"No," the suspect replies after a longish pause, thrown by the out-of-left-field question.

Shallue says he knows Margarita had expressed great fear in her last call to her brother Balfre because Abelardo was trying to rape her.

"Be a man," the detective says. "Stand up. If you lie to me, and I can show you're lying to me, you'll be in a lot of trouble. If you tell the truth, it will help you. I don't think this was planned. I think it was a mistake. I don't think it was premeditated. Just one of those moments. How did this happen?"

Abelardo says he doesn't know what happened, and that he'd been intoxicated on booze and cocaine.

Shallue now asks him straight up why he "did it."

"I don't know," Abelardo replies.

It's not a full confession, but close.

"When did you realize what you had done?" the detective asks.

"When she was dead."

Abelardo says he can't explain why Margarita was naked from the waist down, or how she'd ended up in the bathtub.

Then, as if the magnitude of his near-confession has hit him, Abelardo quickly retreats.

Now he says another coyote named Alejandro had been in Room 121 all evening with him and Margarita. Abelardo insists that he'd found Margarita dead in the bathroom, and that's all he really knows.

"But in a sense, Margarita told us what happened when she was talking to her brother on the phone in the bathroom," Shallue explains, before excusing himself from the room.

The detective confers briefly with Jack Ballentine, telling him that federal authorities could charge Abelardo with murder because Margarita died while being smuggled into the States.

But Ballentine doesn't want to go that route -- he wants Abelardo to face charges in the state system, not federally. He asks Shallue to go back in and work Abelardo harder:

"Tell him we pretty much know everything and to stop beating around the bush. Tell him everybody knows it. Tell him to work with you or you won't get a raise, I don't care. And ask him to explain how his fingerprints got on her neck."

Ballentine is referring to Abelardo's admission to fellow coyote (and assault victim) Sergio Santos about the girl's being strangled.

It falls within the rules of the police interrogation game, fair or not.

"I want you to try to remember," Shallue tells Abelardo a few minutes later. "I want to know that she didn't suffer a lot. I have your fingerprints on her neck. Do you understand me?"

Back in the monitoring room, Ballentine talks to the television set: "Stay with him, Johnny. Don't lose him here. He's weakening."

After a series of "I don't remembers" and "I don't knows," Abelardo Jarquin-Lopez gives it all up.

He confesses that he'd choked Margarita with both hands after she tried to escape his amorous clutches in Room 121.

"Was it inside the bathroom when you grabbed her by the neck?" Shallue asks.

"It was inside."

"Was she dead?"


"In your hands?"


Abelardo says Margarita fell into the tub after she was dead.

Shallue asks how her jeans and panties had ended up on the floor next to the beds. Without elaborating, Abelardo says that happened as he'd chased Margarita toward the bathroom.

He now adds that she'd broken his nose with her fist when he tried to rape her. That, he explains, had sent him into a rage.

Abelardo says he'd wiped off his bloody nose with the pillow case and towels -- so that's where the blood came from -- before leaving the room.

"Do you feel like a weight has now been lifted?" Shallue asks the killer.

"No," Abelardo says. "I have to pay for what I did."

Shallue thanks him for his honesty and leaves.

Moments later, Jack Ballentine and Jason Schechterle greet the detective with high-fives and attaboys.

Someone points out that Shallue's face is deeply flushed.

He gestures over to Ballentine, one of the Phoenix department's most storied detectives.

"I was more nervous knowing that he was watching me than actually interviewing that guy," he says.

A county grand jury indicted Abelardo Jarquin-Lopez on one count of first-degree felony murder, with the underlying charge being the attempted rape of Margarita Parada. He's being held at the Maricopa County Jail in lieu of $1 million bond. Abelardo has pleaded innocent. No trial date has been set.

Miriam Frascari translated several interviews for this story.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin